What are tropes and how can you use them to strengthen your fiction? What are some examples of horror tropes, in particular? With Jennifer Hilt.
In the intro, Why book sales are down and what to do about it [6 Figure Authors]; Undisruptible: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations, and Life by Aidan McCullen; Sadness about sales [@LouiseVoss1]; How pop stars really make money [The Telegraph], Impact of subscription models [Ask ALLi]; Shutterstock will sell AI-generated stock images [Digital Trends]; Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Virtual Worlds; The Creator Economy for Authors.
Today’s show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna
Jennifer Hilt is the USA Today best-selling author of over 24 books across four pen names, writing in urban fantasy, supernatural suspense and paranormal romance. Her books for authors include The Trope Thesaurus, Trope Your Way to a Stronger Story, and appropriately for Halloween, The Horror Trope Thesaurus: Killing it with Tropes.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- Creating the time to write despite a full life
- What is a trope and why are they important?
- The five categories of tropes
- The diversity of the horror genres
- Writing familiar tropes without becoming cliché
- Examples from horror TV — Stranger Things and Midnight Mass — as well as books
- Using tropes in book marketing
You can find Jennifer Hilt at jenniferhilt.com and on Twitter @jenehilt
Shareable image generated by Joanna Penn with DALL-E2
Transcript of Interview with Jennifer Hilt
Joanna: Jennifer Hilt is the USA Today best-selling author of over 24 books across four pen names, writing in urban fantasy, supernatural suspense and paranormal romance. Her books for authors include The Trope Thesaurus, Trope Your Way to a Stronger Story, and appropriately for Halloween, The Horror Trope Thesaurus: Killing it with Tropes. Welcome to the show, Jen.
Jennifer: Oh, thanks so much for having me.
Joanna: This is such a great topic.
Before we get into it, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
Jennifer: I’ve always loved storytelling, even as a kid, I was able to walk to my local library and spend tons of time there, which is a huge gift. And so I just read everything possible.
I thought that I would become a writer. And the way to do that would be to go to school. So I went and got two degrees, one in linguistics and one in language and all the time thinking about, ‘Oh, I’m going to write a book someday when I know enough to do that.’
When I got into school, I realized that school didn’t really teach me how to write. I needed to figure that out myself. Reading and thinking about how books are put together is really the way to do that. I didn’t really feel like going to school to learn to write a book was the way to do it.
So that’s what led me to a lot of self study and thinking, how is the story put together and just being intensely curious, that led me to doing some plotting with others, because I do have lots of story ideas. I’m helpful at helping them develop their ideas into like a full-blown book. As I was doing that process, I started to really think more in detail about the specifics of how stories put together, particularly tropes.
Joanna: How did you get into going the indie way? Do you have a day job in this kind of thing? Or how do you manage that side of things?
Jennifer: I had two children who had health problems. So I even though I did have a day job, I wasn’t able to keep that up. So I ended up just doing lots of writing to help my mental health when I had some free time to escape all the stuff that was going on with the kids. That was how I managed that. I wasn’t able to keep working outside the home, doing teaching and writing things.
Joanna: Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s really a strong message that you’ve written, how many books did I say? Over 24? I think I lost count.
Jennifer: Yes, it was really interesting. When my first son developed his health problem, I was always thinking, Okay, I’m really going to push this when I have time, and when the kids whatever. And then when he got that illness, it was like the horror of that.
But also, I did feel some shame as a mom/storyteller in that, I realized, I’m never going to get the time, I’m going to have to find it somewhere. Nobody’s going to give me this time, because now there’s this big thing that we need to do to keep him alive.
So I really can identify with people who are trying to juggle multiple things. And you just have this need to let this part of yourself be expressed, even though there’s a lot of forces on you that are trying to push that down. I think it’s important to do that for yourself.
Even if it’s not a thing you published. I have also plenty of books that I haven’t published, but I just had to write that story. I feel like as storytellers, it’s important to know, it’s fine to do that, too.
Joanna: That’s great. We will get into tropes, but you said, I’m never going to get the time, no one’s going to give it to you.
How did you manage to find the time? Did you sacrifice your sleep?
Jennifer: Yes, usually that’s what parents or caregivers find is you’re giving up sleep somewhere. I am by my nature an early riser. So I ended up getting up an hour earlier, which is also a thing that you’ve heard.
The other funny thing, which people always find odd, was that because I would have to leave the house because it was really hard for me to work even if things were quiet. I just couldn’t get the mental space. But we had a McDonald’s nearby. So I would get up at five in the morning and go sit and work in McDonald’s for an hour before I would come home.
My non-writer friends never understood that. But I’ve since talked to a lot of others who were like, ‘oh, yeah, we work in our cars’ just have to go to someplace where you can get a little mental space so you can enter that other world.
But for me, it was getting up an hour earlier in the morning. But some people end up staying later or lunch hours or it is hard if you have to find the time where you can. I think the trade off is I would feel better if I got that hour in as opposed to just kind of suppressing my need to escape and storytelling.
Joanna: I love that. In my head, I’ve got this vision of you sitting in McDonald’s. And I think actually, these chain restaurants, Starbucks is kind of the same, people don’t bother you, if you sit there longer as long as you get a drink or something, then you can kind of sit there and people don’t interrupt. Whereas if you’re in a smaller place, you can feel kind of guilty about that, but you don’t feel guilty about sitting in McDonald’s.
Jennifer: Exactly. And the other thing that I found, and this could just be me was, first of all, at five o’clock in the morning, McDonald’s is mostly groups of retired men. Sitting in these like, tables of six, six to eight, it was always really interesting to see the same ones, but and I would sit far away from them, because I didn’t want to be distracted by their sounds.
The nice thing about going and working at someplace like that is I didn’t feel like I had pressure on me. I felt like I was escaping pressure. Where I live in Seattle now if I go sit in a coffee shop in Seattle, even now it’s like, oh, my gosh, I feel like every other person there is writing a book. It’s just very serious and intense. It doesn’t matter which coffee shop it is.
So I’m still partial to McDonald’s and various chain places to sit with a coke and do my work and just kind of feel like, ‘Oh, I’m free.’ And I’m not in somebody else’s headspace.
Joanna: I love that, great productivity tips there. So let’s get into the book.
What is a trope anyway? And why are they so important in our fiction?
Jennifer: I’m so glad you asked. Because we’re hearing that word trope so much more now. I think with social media and all the visual storytelling out there, I’m amazed how much I hear the word trope. Even two years ago, it wasn’t being talked about the way it is now.
For me, what I’ve discovered in a lot of my digging and and research is, I feel like a trope is just a building block. It’s a commonly understood idea that when we say a trope, for example, like orphan, I don’t need to go into a lot of depth and definition with you about what it is. People get what tropes are they understand it’s this general idea.
So I think they’re super important because we can take that general idea and then expand with it in our story. It’s a way of getting the readers or audience hooked early into our world. And then we go in deeper into building it to a specific place.
Joanna: I like that. So it’s a kind of shortcut to the reader’s subconscious, like you said, we could say, ‘writer in a coffee shop’.
Joanna: That’s a truth these days, certainly on this podcast, that would be true. You said they’re building blocks:
What are the different types of building blocks?
Jennifer: I found when I started this journey of looking at tropes, I found there’s lots and lots of lists, and they’re almost always alphabetical. So I started to think, well, that’s kind of overwhelming for me. I’m used to writing stories so how can I think about these objects as more than just an alphabetical listing.
In my mind, I started to break them up into basically five categories.
First is person, second place and then object. And then I also thought of them as secrets and changes.
So I would take the trope lists and divide them up into those categories. It really helps with storytelling, because I could say, oh, it helps me break these down further. Do I need a secret? Do I need a change? What what’s going to happen? What do I need to happen in the story? And then what are some options I have?
Joanna: I think person, place, and object, we’re going to come back to these for Halloween.
Go into Secrets and Changes a bit more, because that doesn’t bring up obvious examples in my head.
Jennifer: Secret baby is my favorite trope of all time, I think, because I pretty much find it in any genre I read. And it’s what I think of as a twofer. Because you have the secret of you know what happened with that thing. And then you have the physical baby, which you’re dealing with, and it doesn’t have to be just a baby, it can be a grown person, but it’s especially in mystery.
It’s amazing how much secret babies are there. You find out at the end, Oh, that was so and so’s secret baby.
Joanna: Give us an example because this is one of those things, apparently is a romance trope. I just don’t understand how anyone can have that. What is the secret baby?
Jennifer: Since it’s Halloween, one of the examples I can do with secret baby to talk about is Midnight Mass. And in that one, the doctor is actually the secret baby of the priest and her mother.
Joanna: Oh, you’re right. What you mean is it can be in the past. It doesn’t mean to be a baby right now.
Joanna: Ah, okay. I thought it was like someone’s pregnant but they’re hiding it somehow like they go and hide.
Jennifer: You can do that too. I think the thing with tropes is that we don’t need to be, because it’s a building block, we don’t have to be super specific about it. I mean, yes, it can be a physical baby, you can do it like that. Or you can use it as something that happened in the past. And then it’s your head, you’re dealing with the result in romance, a lot of times it’s a shorter term thing.
It’s a nine-month, they get together, they break up, she’s pregnant, then they get together again, and it’s all happily ever after, usually when the baby arrives, but in other genres, you see the results is what you’re dealing with down the road of, oh, I didn’t realize this person was related to that person.
Joanna: Ah, okay. And that then brings obviously, inherent conflict. I like it. So secrets, good example there.
What about Changes?
Jennifer: Changes are really important, because at first I was like, we know our stories need change, but it’s like how to do that is the rub. My favorite example of a trope with change is the ugly duckling. Because at first I was thinking of it in the traditional Cinderella way; she’s got this rags to riches thing.
But then it occurred to me more and more, our characters often are undergoing a change in that same way. And particularly I loved with horror, how often it’s a monster that we’re having that change, either becoming one or the characters of monster, and they’re becoming more human.
So it’s really an evolutionary kind of trope is what how I came to think about it.
Joanna: I quite like that. Let’s do some examples of person, place, and objects as well, since we’re putting this out on Halloween. So we’re going to talk about those.
Let’s do a Person. What’s a popular horror trope with a person?
Jennifer: Tortured hero or heroine.
Pretty much every horror story is going to have a protagonist who has horrible things that have happened in the past and if it’s a horror story, most likely those things are going to be ongoing happening in our current story. So I think that’s a trope, really, that you find also, though, in romance, and particularly also in mystery.
I love mysteries, and there’s always the hard-boiled detective who’s an alcoholic, and he’s divorced, and nobody’s speaking to him, and he’s had this horrible thing happened in the past.
I really feel like that trope is used in all kinds of genres to really good effect, because as people we have really varied experiences. And we all have past traumas to some degree or another. So why shouldn’t our characters?
Joanna: I guess this brings up a question around. Obviously, none of this is cut and dried, but with person, so let’s say vampires in the past, vampires would be a horror trope.
You’d expect something with a vampire is going to be horror. But that’s not true anymore, is it?
Jennifer: No, it’s interesting, because I think now the fantasy tropes, there’s so many great mashups and things that you can do with them.
For example, I’m thinking of What We Do in the Shadows, which took the vampire trope, which at the time, I thought, what else could you do with vampires? And the we’ve seen so much done with them, how could you possibly do something new?
Then the show comes out with the idea of basically a fake documentary about vampires living in a house on Staten Island, and it blew my mind. It’s so well done. And it’s so obvious, but obviously, nobody had thought of it before these two guys.
So even though there are tropes that have been around a long time, like vampires, there’s still people who are finding new ways to use them and make them engaging stories for us.
Joanna: Coming back to Midnight Mass: I read horror, but I don’t read slasher horror, but I like supernatural horror, but I hardly ever watch it because I feel like my imagination is a bit much and gives me nightmares and stuff. But I started watching Midnight Mass on Netflix, and it’s quite a slow start.
Let’s talk about Places. Midnight Mass is on this island that’s cut off, which I always think is a good horror trope.
But it’s such a slow burn show. And what they do with vampires in that TV series, it is definitely horror, but what they do is they almost flip it with this religious idea.
There’s this one scene where the vampire is wearing priest’s outfit and it was so shocking to me. I’d never experienced that particular way of spinning vampire even within horror. I’m sure a lot of people listening have seen a lot more like that but I thought that was quite interesting around what to do with both a character and also a place
Jennifer: Exactly. I thought the idea behind Midnight Mass was really fascinating, like you’re talking about. I also found it extremely slow and personally in my mind was editing about three episodes so we could get things moving.
Joanna: Just on that. It’s so interesting you said that because I found it just drew me in and I loved it. In fact, I’ve watched it twice. I loved it. I’ll probably watch it again. I think because I have a very strong religious education and I write a lot of religion, that there was such a dense layer of religious imagery and kind of callbacks.
So to me, the series was not just a straight horror, where it sounds like the way you like these things to go is a bit faster. And with perhaps less heavy symbolism and slow religious development. That’s a great example of what people like I suppose.
Jennifer: I think that’s really also a wonderful point about the diversity of horror, because I think when I started studying it more specifically, I was like, Oh, I don’t really like horror, because I don’t like slasher things. But then, as I studied it more and like horror is huge. I think it it’s such it’s so much more diverse than probably any of the other genres because you don’t have to have a happy ever after.
You don’t have to have the villain brought to justice. You can have so many different things happen in such a mashup. Yes, I really do tend to like things that that move along and have more a certain tightness and a pacing to it. And I generally like stories that are shorter. There’s very few books that I’ll read that are really, really long. I think, are all these words are necessary.
Joanna: I love that. That’s hilarious. I get what you mean. I do like that in some things. But I think it was interesting. You said about the diversity of horror, because I find more and more that so much of horror is almost literary, it doesn’t really suit series, because so many people die.
With a standalone novel, people can really experiment a lot more than they might have done in a clearer genre series, for example. So I agree with the diversity; it just seems much broader than some of the other genres.
Horror lies under so many genres, doesn’t it?
Jennifer: It does. And the other thing I love about horror is I find that it has a real acceptance of the absurd. I personally love that myself.
An example would be What We Do In The Shadows, where some people just like, oh, that’s ridiculous. I couldn’t possibly be interested in that.
I love that when you can take something and set it in a fantastical setting and you’re like, Okay, I’m going on this journey, but actually what’s happening is so intensely personal and real, and you’re able to relate to, but it gives you like a little bit of a distance to do that.
I love that you can do that in horror, and I don’t see it obviously as much in other genres. Although sci fi and fantasy can do cool things which can be absurd too but it’s one of the things that I noticed when I was reading all these different books and looking at all these different movies and things I’m like, oh, yeah, it’s okay. It’ll slip some of this in and the audience is going to go along with it.
Joanna: Let’s come to place because I love setting. Setting is a big thing for me as a writer, but also as a consumer. Obviously, I mentioned there, the deserted island and the village where things keep burning down and it gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Really interesting churches feature a lot in a horror. But also we wanted to talk about Stranger Things because I feel like Stranger Things is almost built on horror setting.
What are some of the examples Stranger Things?
Jennifer: I love Stranger Things. I was just going to backup to say that when we were talking about Midnight Mass, forced proximity is really what they’ve set up pretty obviously with that island. And I think horror is a genre that uses it almost exclusively. It’s pretty much in every story.
You’ll find forced proximity in romance and mystery too, but it’s a such a great way to prevent any kind of physical or mental escape for the characters. So definitely Midnight Mass was working with the island and burning the boats. And the end. That’s fantastic.
But yeah, Stranger Things. The setting is just fantastic with that too, because I felt like it’s the details in Stranger Things which I think transport me there. I was thinking, it’s almost like you can smell Joyce’s cigarette smoke. And you can imagine what it’s like to sit around the table and have the casseroles that they’re serving, and everything’s laden with cheese. It’s just that level of detail was what really puts us in the setting. I think they did a fantastic job with that.
And in a mash-up kind of way too, because they’re showing us like the 70s/80s time, which is very familiar to me. I grew up in that time. And they’re introducing that to like a whole other group of people who haven’t experienced that before. But then those of us who did we get to relive it. So I thought it was really clever to do it that way instead of setting it now.
The other thing with the setting was they made it feel like forced proximity in this small town even though technically you could have left, or you could go somewhere else. But the way they set it up, there was really no escape from being there.
Joanna: Absolutely. And it’s kind of interesting, the latest series has this classic haunted house.
And there’s the haunted house on in the real side. And then there’s in the upside down and these evil tree roots, the almost alive, evil tree, I feel like they always took a checklist of horror tropes. And we’re like, how can we put this in in a way that people who love this still love it? But without thinking, Oh, it’s been done before?
That’s the thing with horror, isn’t it? And also, they had the abandoned nucular bunker mentioned, forced proximity, no escape. Any of these things in one way could be considered a cliche. But for me, the reason Stranger Things work so well is because it’s so familiar.
How do we balance familiar tropes without becoming a cliché?
Jennifer: It’s a great question. I end up talking to authors about this quite a bit. I think the difference a cliché is something that hasn’t been developed.
The example that I think about with a cliche, you’re going to write a story about a character who is an athlete, or the cliched version of that is the dumb jock. So the difference is, I can take an athlete, and I can make that into any kind of character in any kind of genre. But if I’m supposed to write a story about a dumb jock, it just mentally makes it harder for me because it’s negative. It’s really fixed. I’m like, okay, so what am I working with here?
I feel like the problem with cliches is they’re just not developed ideas, where we take a trope, and we’re going to twist it and develop and add our own spin on it. And that’s exactly what they did with the Stranger Things. That’s why it’s so good is because there’s things that are familiar about it, yet they’ve added all their own details to it. And that’s what keeps you coming back.
Also, the idea of what’s going to happen next, I don’t feel like we give that enough credit. As storytellers that’s really the most important thing. We can talk about craft until the sun goes down, which I’m fine to do. But really the most important thing is we want to hook our audience into knowing what’s going to happen next. And if we can do that, then we’re successful as storytellers.
Joanna: Well, that’s interesting. Because do we want them to know what’s going to happen next?
Are we using tropes to make them feel like they know what’s going to happen next, and then twist it so that it’s more original?
Jennifer: What we want is we want them to want to know that. You’re going to be thinking, Okay, I’m going to be done after this episode. A good show like Stranger Things, even though you’re like, I’m turning this off at the end of this episode is going to give you two minutes of like, oh, well, I didn’t see that coming. Now, I want to know what’s going to happen next?
The power of binging is that we don’t have to wait until next week to get the new to new thing. But the trope, like I said, I feel like they lay the groundwork for what we know, the general language of what we’re talking about. But then it hooks us into the specifics of that world.
Joanna: I feel like character is a really good way to do this and in horror we can do this a lot because you expect body count, but often, the way things are written or the way things are filmed, you don’t expect certain characters to disappear. So I was just thinking there, again, when it’s difficult to talk about this without doing spoilers.
At the end of season one of Game of Thrones there is a character who dies, who originally we thought was a significant character who might go all the way, but ends up dying. In the same way with Midnight Mass, I felt like again, there’s a significant character who you think this is the hero, this is the character who’s going to make it through.
And then it’s almost like the shift in expectation or keeping the interest is that a lot of the times these characters don’t make it through.
I feel like horror has a lot more freedom to kill off characters, whereas other genres almost don’t have that freedom.
Jennifer: I think that’s true. And you were talking about that where you can do stand alones versus having to have a series. I think it’s interesting because having the courage to kill off a character like they did with Midnight Mass, it was so interesting how it didn’t change the focus from him to the young woman he had a relationship with and those others.
There was all of a sudden these other characters who were more secondary rising to the surface, and that’s a really interesting way to do that. And I too, didn’t think that would happen and it made me wonder Okay, so now what’s going to happen with I was thinking of the doctor, that she ended up playing a much more prominent role in it than you would have guessed from the outset. Or at least I would have guessed.
Joanna: Yes. Jonathan Maberry, who’s one of my favorite authors, he works in horror as well as other things. He says ‘horror is not about the monster, it’s about the people who kill the monster.’ And so to me, almost the mystery is, how are they going to resolve this? How are they going to kill the monster, when certain things happen that look like therefore it’s all over.
Let’s talk about plot tropes. Because I guess that fits into Secrets and Changes in a way.
Plot tropes. For example, in horror, when a baddie is killed, they are very likely going to come back one more time.
That’s a horror trope of a plot or do you think that’s more of a character trope?
Jennifer: Whatever it helps you visualize the story better. I think the thing with the with plot and tropes is we’re trying to think of how to advance the story. I use tropes that way.
I guess I’m thinking about kidnap, or revenge, or jealousy, or those kind of elements of plot, which it’s a one word thing, but we can break it down into all these little micro scenes that help us get there in the end.
And I just have to back up and say, I love that quote by Maberry, because to me, that was the biggest realization, reading all these horror and looking at all these horror movies was it’s all about relationships. Yes, there’s blood and gore. But it’s really the relationship that it’s about.
The closer the relationship is to the protagonist, the more the agony, the greater our experience is an audience. And that was really fascinating for me to realize that to about relationships, because I just didn’t get that going into it.
Joanna: Maybe people who don’t like horror have stopped listening. But I feel like it’s a genre with so many different elements. Cosmic horror, for example. Whereas a lot of elements of sci fi, and huge world-changing horror, it’s so different. And like we’ve both said, we don’t read any slasher stuff.
So there is blood and death, but it’s not in a written in a way or, or visually in a way, where that’s the focus. And it’s actually funny with Midnight Mass I did have to look away a few times. But I keep wanting to go back to it. It’s kind of addictive to have these these different layers.
I did also wanted to return to Object because we were giving examples of everything.
Give us some good horror objects.
Jennifer: The MacGuffin is the classic object of the thing that you’re looking for. And you can again, find that in any genre, it doesn’t have to just be in horror. But that’s kind of like the main one, but also, or a main one. But objects could be like a secret baby.
So say that there’s somebody who had had this relationship in the village or whatever, and you’re looking for that it can be anything that helps move the story along in that way. Another good, I even think of Ugly Duckling is can be an abject trope, because of if it’s a monster, and everybody’s like looking for the monster.
Joanna: I guess for me, it’s think well, and that this is happening I write which is sort of a cursed book. So in A Thousand Fiendish Angels, there’s a book of human skin, which releases this curse that destroys the world. And that book is an object and it’s cursed and people transform. And so that is a classic.
To me, a horror trope is a cursed grimoire or a cursed book or a cursed sword or cursed objects that wreak havoc in whatever world you’re writing in. To me thisis a very horror trope.
Jennifer: Exactly. There always seems to be a thing. In Midnight Mass when they pull in, we don’t even know who it is, they pull in that giant trunk. I thought, Oh, that was great. And just the way they did it with like the thump, thump thump of how heavy it was. And I mean, there’s nothing good in there.
But you want to know what it is. I just thought that was a great way to do it without it being a smaller specific object and have it be literally you’re opening it to find another thing.
Joanna: I love the cursed object thing. I live in Bath and in the southwest of the UK, and there were Roman Baths here. So a 2000-year-old bath complex, it’s still there, you can come visit. And they when they dug it all up the first time they found all these curse tablets. So these little scrolls of metal were in Latin. There were all these kind of curses on people who had wronged them or lovers or whatever. And it was so interesting.
They were thrown into the sacred spring because the spring here is sacred to a pagan goddess. And then the Romans took it over.
This idea of cursed objects is so human, because clearly it’s in every culture. It’s in different genres. But it is so interesting how some of the horror tropes particularly I feel, like demonic possession. Again, it’s in every culture, the idea of something taking over someone. And some of it might be explained in modern times.
There are things in horror that I feel are really ancient in terms of tropes that you can read in myth as well as in modern books.
Jennifer: Absolutely. And it’s not a horror. A movie that I kept going back to thinking about was the first Indiana Jones movie where they’re looking for the Ark of the Covenant. It is a perfect example of what we’re trying to do in a variety of stories.
They’re basically taking this ancient thing and still trying to capture the power of that. So it works in with the curses that you were mentioning, and I think it’s just the idea of looking for monsters. And who is the monster?
Joanna: Of course, another Indiana Jones film was the Temple of Doom, which is so funny you brought that up now. In my head, I remember it was one of the first movies my dad took me to, and I left the cinema when the priest reaches into the guy’s chest and rips it out. I mean, that is totally a horror moment in an action-adventure movie, that I don’t know how they let children watch.
Jennifer: It was a different time for sure. I’m amazed at like some of this stuff. And I’ll go back and watch a movie. Like really? This was PG.
Joanna: It’s crazy. It really is interesting, actually thinking about twisting horror tropes a bit. Teen Wolf was a movie with Michael J. Fox, back in the 80s. And this is a werewolf in a school. But it was a funny, as far as I remember. It was quite funny.
We’ve been switching around these tropes for a long time and making some of them funny, like Shaun of the Dead. Have you seen Shaun of the Dead? Or is it just a British thing?
Jennifer: I love it. And it’s again, for me the example of the absurd. Yes. comedy horror. And there’s that that is discrete again, where you’re just like, oh, how could you possibly do another thing on it? And then they just that slight twist or mashup of kind of this poor slacker guy and Zombies.
Joanna: Just epic. I’m sure everyone listening is like, why are they only talking about movies and TV? Well, it’s mainly because when we were thinking about this, and more people have watched these shows and have read different books.
I think we should mention at least Stephen King in the horror genre. I always like to bring up The Stand, which is so important to me as a book. But it’s funny because I went to listen to the audiobook at the beginning of the pandemic. And if people haven’t read The Stand, essentially a plague with flu symptoms wipes out 99% of the world.
I couldn’t listen to it. I couldn’t read it because of obviously, the pandemic and with COVID.
But it’s interesting how some of these tropes go up and down, isn’t it? They wax and they wane depending on the situation.
I think pandemic books were popular for a bit and then they’ve kind of gone out of fashion now.
Jennifer: I think we need more of an escape than that. But yes, I remember too and that when the pandemic was first starting there was actually reading an article, there was a huge spike in viewership of movies and things like that, that narrow thinking. Personally I wanted something is opposite of what was going on. But then is the pandemic and just kind of kept going and going, that dropped way down.
And then it was hard for people who are trying to get books published that they’ve been working on a long time that are about a pandemic at a time when everybody’s like, I don’t want to hear any more about a pandemic. So it’s interesting how there’s that kind of waxing and waning of tropes and of things that people find interesting and what really we have appetites for.
Joanna: That reminds me; I remember Anne Rice, who’s obviously famous for Interview with a Vampire and a lot of vampire books, and she said, ‘Don’t say that vampire books are dead.’ She said something like she’s made three lots of fortunes out of vampire books because they keep coming round even when people say are no one’s buying vampire books anymore. They actually are and they will come into fashion again.
I think when Twilight hit and Rice once again made more money because people were back into vampires. And so as these things happen, so if you’re someone who likes to write a certain thing in your books, like I like cursed books and they feature in quite a lot of my stories. That’s fine. You’re allowed to do that.
And in fact, I wonder if religious horror is kind of coming back because of things like Midnight Mass, which is quite interesting to me. So yeah, things circle back, don’t they?
Especially these tropes, which echo so much, as we said, into mythology into religious history, they keep coming back because they’re such a basic part of humanity.
Jennifer: Absolutely. The other interesting thing I was thinking about vampires is we had Twilight. And we have all the rights. And then again, it was like, oh, what could never be done with vampires. Then Charlene Harris hits the scene with Sookie Stackhouse.
It’s like, oh, you can have vampire detective novels in that way or vampire thrillers. And that was a whole resurgence of vampires in a different way than we thought. The idea of vampire Bill, the average nerdy guy who happens to be this awfully sexy vampire. She did a great job of again, taking a trope and twisting, and I still will reread her books and just be like, Ah, so good. She’s got so much in there.
It’s done in such a way that you feel like you’re enveloped in that world, as opposed to like, Oh, here’s a trope. Here’s a trope. Here’s a trope, here’s a trope. So I think she did a great job of using it organically to build the stories.
That’s really what we want to do. And if anybody hasn’t, you can watch the series, but her books are also really good. You get into more of the character’s mindset. So I was just going to put a plug in for everybody to check those out seeing it’s Halloween.
Joanna: I did want to ask before we’re out of time, how can we use tropes in our marketing, to tap into an underlying desire in our readers? So maybe in covers and descriptions or social media images?
How can we use tropes in book marketing?
Jennifer: It’s really interesting calling out the trope in your blurb can be hugely helpful with being seen because of the whole keyword issue. So I would say don’t bury it unless it’s like a crucial part of your story that you have to read the whole book to find out at the end a character is a certain thing. Be very straightforward.
You’re calling those out in your blurbs in your marketing, because audiences know what they love. So if you got a vampire book, don’t hide that it’s a vampire book in your marketing, because you’re going to find people who want that. And if people aren’t into vampires, they’re not going to pick up your book anyway.
We don’t need to be ashamed or hiding that we’re using tropes, because as long as they’re well developed, audiences are going to love it, but it just helps them to find us. So I think that’s really important.
Joanna: So you mean include the words but also the images and the tone almost in, for example, horror books are not usually white, they don’t normally have a light pastel colored look about them. Horror books normally have a darkness about them in some way.
Jennifer: Exactly. It’s also important that you follow what’s going on in your genre. So you want to stick with what you think you would think like, oh, I should be new and creative. So people will will see this. But the reality is, we like what we know and what’s familiar. So you really want your book cover to work with the other covers in that genre. Because it signals to the reader visually when they’re scrolling through a million things online, and there’s so many things competing for your interest.
This is in the same category or grouped or looks similar to that. So we’re kind of working with an audience bias, I think, by using tropes that way. I think people shouldn’t be afraid to use them. Because you’ve put the work in for the story, you might as well call it out visually and in your blurbs. And any way you can with the keywords to let readers know that the things that they like are in there.
Joanna: Obviously, we can’t do this as authors but Netflix, and to some extent, Amazon Prime is starting to do it, Amazon TV, but Netflix, especially I can see it when I log in versus when my husband logs in. But it can be the same series. They’re using different images for when I’m logged in to when he’s logged in, which I find in one way it’s slightly disturbing. And in another way, it’s genius.
For example, Jonathan likes military stuff, and his feed will be full of military stuff. I’m not so into that. But we could be watching something that’s like The Old Guard, which is a great movie on Netflix with Charlize Theron, the main female character, it’s really her movie, but he gets a more of a group of guys looking action-adventury, not saying that’s a horror. That it’s more of a thriller-type me movie.
It’s so interesting to me how different images call to different people, even though it can be the same book. So part of me wants that for the future of books like in some way we can tweak things. But maybe that’s Facebook ads, you can do different things for different groups. We can’t really do that with book covers, can we?
Jennifer: It’s possible to recover. There’s a lot of authors that will recover their books on a semi-regular basis, to get more eyes on things. I especially have seen that with romance. But also you noticed with cozies; I’ve seen cosy authors do that too. I think that’s fine.
It’s a great use of technology that we’re able to do that where it’s not like the old days where you got a cover and you’re married to that cover for like 10 or 20 years. So it is interesting/disturbing the information that they have about us and they’re able to tweak things in order to get our interests. So we’re seeing that as authors, we know how important it is to get eyes on our material.
Joanna: For sure. Well, The Horror Trope Thesaurus is fantastic. The Original Trope Thesaurus is great.
What are you writing next? Where are you going with that series?
Jennifer: Right now I’m finishing edits on The Romance Trope Thesaurus, which is a really deep dive into the genre of romance and then 10 sub-genres. So I’m wrapping that up.
And then the thing that I’m really excited to be working on new is basically a book that talks about tropes and conventions, and themes and how we put these all together to create scenes.
We talked a little bit about, for example, enemies to lovers or in horror, I think of it as like, the opposite way, lovers to enemies, where it turns out that that person is actually like the monster and working against you. But to get from to get through that change trope you need to have a whole bunch of scenes in there to do that. So I’m playing around with how we use tropes to get those scenes and what are necessary to develop them more in a plot.
Where can people find you and all your books and everything you do online?
Jennifer: jenniferhilt.com So just check me out and all my books are available wide. Pretty easy to find and feel free to drop me an email and talk about tropes.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Jen. That was great.
Jennifer: Thanks for having me and happy Halloween.
The post Using Tropes To Strengthen Your Fiction With Jennifer Hilt first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn